Originally posted on Aaron Torres Sports  |  Last updated 4/1/13

NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 20: Coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks to his team during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 20, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)
(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports) To appreciate the significance of Louisville’s 85-63 Elite Eight beat down of Duke on Sunday, you’ve first got to appreciate just how this program came to get to that exact moment. For the Cardinals, it hasn’t been a yellow brick road on the path to college basketball glory, but instead a long, winding one, which cast doubt on these players, their coach and the future of this program overall.   To be honest, I’m not totally sure when the Louisville Cardinals turned into, well... this (in essence the 2013 National Championship favorite), but what I can tell you is that I was able to witness first-hand when they were at the opposite end of this college basketball paradigm. It came in my one and only trip to Kentucky last January, and was at a time when Louisville’s hoops’ program was something worse than bad. They were irrelevant. Irrelevant to the rest of the college basketball world, and overshadowed in their own state by the Big Blue monolith known as Kentucky basketball. And it was also at that moment when this whole thing hit its tipping point, and Louisville’s basketball program reached its own personal rock-bottom. It was January 19, 2012, and I was in town to cover Kentucky’s game with Alabama that weekend. Meanwhile, Louisville was coming off a double-digit loss to Marquette the night before. In the process they’d fallen to 14-5 overall and to the fringe of the Top 25. Yet for Louisville fans the real concern didn’t come from that game, or frankly anything that their program wasn’t doing. Instead the real concern came from roughly 80 miles away and everything that John Calipari was doing at Kentucky. For Louisville fans, it was a confluence of events which really did provide a worst case scenario. It was about the fact that at that exact moment, Kentucky was starting to transform from a top-flight program under Calipari into one which seemed to be in the beginning stages of a college basketball dynasty. It was about Louisville’s 0-3 record against Kentucky in the three years since Calipari had taken over. And it was about the fact that the Wildcats were fresh off on a Final Four berth in 2011 and seemingly on a collision course with another, and something maybe even bigger, in the spring of 2012. At the same time, Louisville was coming off their straight NCAA disappointment, and second straight opening-game loss. But really, you what was more concerning for Louisville fans at the time? It was the idea that there was simply hope going forward. Kentucky continued to bring in five-star recruit after five-star recruit, while it was perceived (at least at the time) that Pitino was stuck signing Calipari’s sloppy seconds and recruits who Kentucky would’ve never considered in the first place. The lowest moment came when Marquis Teague, the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2011, seemed intent on committing to Louisville...right up until he elected to pick Kentucky in the summer before his senior year. Louisville had them in their hands, until they didn’t. And it was the dagger in all of Louisville’s hearts. Or at least it was until the weekend I got there. For Pitino the lowest moment may have actually come on January 20, 2011. On that day, Kentucky received another commitment, this one from a local 2013 prospect named Derrick Willis. I was personally at the press conference, and I can’t tell you the hysteria his announcement caused across the state. By now, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking: Why did it cause so much hysteria? Why was it such a big deal for Kentucky to sign a high three-star prospect, and one which turned out to be undoubtedly the worst of their legendary 2013 class? Well for Louisville, there were two reasons that Willis’ commitment to UK didn’t just sting, but burned like fire in an open wound. For starters, Willis grew up as a Louisville fan and attended Louisville games as a kid, which meant that he also grew up rooting against the ‘Cats. I mean if there should’ve ever been one player who was entirely off Kentucky’s radar all together, it had to be this kid, right? Only he wasn’t, and that also led to the second, and bigger issue with his commitment: When Willis announced that he’d chosen Kentucky, it really did make Louisville fans ever wonder if they would ever be able to get another recruit that both Calipari and Pitino had wanted? Pitino was essentially batting .000 going head-to-head with Cal, and if he couldn’t close on the local kid, with local ties, who grew up ATTENDING LOUISVILLE GAMES what chance did they have with anyone else?? And it was also at that exact moment when Louisville fans lost their collective s*** and seemed set to burn the entire state down. Understand that Calipari had been needling them since he arrived, sticking a “Kick me” sign on Pitino’s back every chance he got, running recruiting circles around them, and the Willis commitment was what put everything over the top. It left the fan-base feeling equal parts apoplectic and helpless and while I can’t say every Louisville fan wanted the school to move in another direction, I was stunned listening to sports talk radio over how many wanted them to seriously consider it. Mostly, I was just stunned at the lack of hope which seemed to surround the fan-base. It was as if everyone had resigned themselves to the fact that Pitino had lost not only his fastball, but his slider and curve too. They also seemed resigned the idea that the program would eternally be in Kentucky’s shadow. At least until Calipari left, anyway. That’s what Louisville was back on January 21, 2012. That’s also what makes their ascent back to the top that much more incredible. A little over 14 months later, Louisville is headed to their second straight Final Four and enters Atlanta as the overwhelming favorite to take home the title.  ********** So when did that change happen? When did Louisville go from that... to this? From overshadowed in their own backyard to the NCAA Tournament favorite and a one-team college basketball wrecking crew? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how it happened. But I’ve got to admit I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Understand we’ve had great college basketball teams before, as recently as last year. I just don’t remember one which evolved and congealed (oh, you weren’t expecting to read the word “congealed” when you opened this article, were you?) quite like the 2012 and 2013 Louisville Cardinals have. Seriously, think about it. Whenever a program transforms this quickly there’s usually a larger explanation behind it. For some schools, it’s a new coach who completely changes the culture of a team (think John Calipari at Kentucky). For others, it’s a once-in-a-generation recruiting class which gets the ball rolling (like Greg Oden’s at Ohio State). Sometimes it’s a once-in-a-generation group of veterans like Florida’s in the mid-2000’s and other times a coach takes over a good team and makes them great, like Roy Williams at Carolina. But when have we ever seen a team quite like Louisville, one which not only seemingly flipped a switch overnight, but did it in the middle of a season too? At Louisville there was no coaching change, no infusion of freshman talent, no removal of a troublesome player causing a distraction. At Louisville they just went from “not very good,” to “not totally terrible,” to “wait, I think these guys are starting to figure things out,” to “man, these guys are definitely figuring it out,” to the Final Four last year and the favorites entering 2013. Nothing has changed now that the 2013 season is almost done. What’s maybe more impressive is the evolution of these players specifically. If Louisville’s rise as a team has been stunning, so too has the progress of most of these players; at some point they were all limited in some degree, and at some point they all seemed to get that limitation corrected. In a lot of ways, it’s almost like one day the team got together and had a weird, ‘Secret Santa’ kinda party. Only instead of giving away cheap wine and donations to the Human Fund, Louisville’s players all shared stuff like “three-point shooting ability” and “defensive tenacity.” Seriously, go ahead and think about these players a year or two ago. And think about how far they’ve come since. Peyton Siva was always a lightning-quick guard with limited shooting ability. Then one day, just like that, he figured out how to hit an open jumper (just as an example, his three-point shooting percentage rose from 29 percent as a junior to 40 percent this season). A couple years back, Gorgui Dieng was a raw shot blocker from Senegal who couldn’t throw the ball into the Louisville River, let alone into a round hoop with a net extended on the end. Now he’s got an efficient low-post game and soft mid-range jumper. But wait, there’s more! There’s Russ Smith, who frankly is a guy that I’m not sure would’ve been very fun to play with as recently as a year ago (he shot just 35 percent from the field in 2012). Now he’s the most exciting player in college basketball, and shooting 42 percent from the field. Wayne Blackshear proved that not every McDonald’s All-American comes to college as a finished product; he went from a seven-minute per game player as a freshman to averaging 20 as a sophomore. Add in Chane Behanan, transfer Luck Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Kevin Ware (prior to the gruesome injury which we won’t discuss here) and all of a sudden we’re talking about one of the most complete college basketball teams we’ve seen in a long time. Now understand I’m not saying Louisville is the “best” team we’ve seen recently (they’re not more talented than the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, 2009 Carolina Tar Heels, 2007 Florida Gators and a few others), but at the same time, what do the Cards not have that you’d really want from your team? They’ve got a veteran point guard in Siva. Smith and (to a smaller degree) Blackshear provide wing scoring. They’ve got perimeter shooting in Hancock. Toughness and rebounding down low with Behanan, Harrell and Stephan Van Treese. They’ve got shot-blocking with Dieng. Add all it up and it leads to an interesting question with Louisville: How exactly do you go about beating this Louisville club? How do you expose a team’s weakness, when it isn’t apparent or obvious that they even have one? And of course after all that, I haven’t even begun to discuss Louisville’s greatest strength, the suffocating and overwhelming defensive intensity they play with. As I mentioned last week, I can’t think of a single team I’ve watched in the past decade who was capable of changing games on the defensive end of the court the way that this Louisville club does to all its opponents. I just can’t. Yet to explain just how good they are, I’m going to skip all the fancy stats and just ask you this: How often do you see a team as well-coached as Duke commit a 10-second violation? Well it happened yesterday against the Cards. Speaking of that Duke game, what we witnessed Saturday really may have been the crescendo to this incredible run. Sure, there are two more games before Louisville is crowned the National Champion, but it’s hard to imagine the Cards putting up a better performance, against a tougher team than they did against Duke on Sunday. Just remember that entering the game many believed that these were the two best teams left in the tournament, only well, you watched yesterday’s game like I did. Louisville turned it into amateur hour at Lucas Oil Stadium. In a way, it was an eye-opening performance in front of a national television audience that validated the Cardinals to even the most casual of fans. It’s also par for the course for those of us who’ve been paying attention the last two months or so. Following Sunday’s victory, Louisville has now won 17 of their last 18 games dating back to January 26 (not ironically, around the same time they started to figure things out in 2012) and 14 in a row. The one loss during that stretch came in your ho-hum, run-of-the-mill five-overtime thriller to Notre Dame back in early February. But since then, this Louisville team has simply been a juggernaut. Of those 14 straight wins, 12 have come by double-digits, and if my math serves me correctly (which is always an iffy proposition), they’ve won those 14 games by an average of 16 points per game. In the process Louisville avenged that loss to Notre Dame not once but twice since, and beat Syracuse twice in that same stretch too. For those of you scoring at home, that’d be the same Syracuse team which is going to the Final Four this weekend in Atlanta. Should I also mention that the Orange’s last loss came by 17 to Louisville in the Big East Tournament final just three weeks ago? If anything, I think that loss was more an indictment of how good the Cardinals are than anything Syracuse may have done poorly. Of course with all that said, does it make this Louisville team the unequivocal favorite heading into Atlanta? Actually, yes it does. I’ve said the entire tournament that Louisville is the favorite (one of my few March predictions which have held up) and following their beat-down of a really good Colorado State team in the Round of 32, I called them an overwhelming favorite, much to the dismay of a couple fan-bases across the country. And at this point, even as good as Syracuse and Michigan have looked and as carefree as Wichita will play next weekend in Atlanta, are you really picking anyone other than the Cardinals to cut down the nets? I’m not, but at the same time I will tell you this: If Louisville does end up taking home the title a week from today it will be a truly spectacular story. Still, it won’t be better than the story of how Louisville got to this point in the first place. (*** Note: if you enjoyed this article, Aaron has now started a once-weekly e-mail newsletter for updates on all his writing, podcasts and giveaways. Sign-up where it says “Aaron Torres Mailing List” on the right side of this website or e-mail him at ATorres00@gmail.com to be added to the list. Also for his continued take on all things sports, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, his newly established Facebook page or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)  
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